StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

Polaroid Roles: Patti Smith as Mary Magdalene, Robert Mapplethorpe as Faust

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on September 14, 2008

White Hot Magazine loved the Mapplethorpe piece! It’ll be published in their next volume (without the footnotes below…)

Polaroid Roles:

Robert Mapplethorpe as Faust, Patti Smith as Mary Magdalene

By Kyle Thomas Smith

Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe

Filmmaker Derek Jarman once described photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s life as “the story of Faust.”[1] As any student of Goethe knows, Faust was an alchemist who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for infinite knowledge and power. In Mapplethorpe: A Biography, Patricia Morrisroe describes how, shortly after dropping acid for the first time in the summer of 1966, Mapplethorpe stopped going to Mass and started attending Timothy Leary’s “Celebrations” at his League for Spiritual Discovery (LSD) in Greenwich Village. As the nuns at Our Lady of the Snows in his native Queens might have warned, these wayward excursions would soon lead Mapplethorpe to explore Satanism.[2] As Morrisroe says, Mapplethorpe was “convinced that exploring the dark side would incite his imagination.”[3] In 1967, twenty-year-old Mapplethorpe told his roommate Harry McCue that he had sold his soul to Lucifer so that he could become the rage of the art world and “destroy all the bullshit people”[4] who looked down on his work at Pratt Institute.

That same summer, at a love-in in Tompkins Square Park, Mapplethorpe met a homeless waif and future rock star named Patti Smith. For the next five years, Mapplethorpe and Smith lived together, first as lovers and then as friends. Both were obsessed with becoming famous artists and, in their early creative efforts, studied the macabre and paranormal together. Smith created poems and drawings to invoke the spirit of Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud, the archetypal enfant terrible who lived in poverty and addiction while vagabonding across three continents and producing one of French literature’s greatest corpuses of poetry. Mapplethorpe’s forays into the occult led him to concoct early collages and installations that fused the themes of pornography, religion, homosexuality and guilt.

According to Patti Smith, Mapplethorpe’s homosexuality “happened overnight”[5] in the summer of 1968: “The gay thing wasn’t there and then suddenly it was.”[6] This wasn’t the gospel truth, of course. Mapplethorpe had struggled with homosexual desires all his life and had been willing to do almost anything to conceal them from himself and others, going so far as to join the ROTC and pledge the Pershing Rifles fraternity in his freshman year at Pratt. Even years later, in the free-love days when Smith dumped Mapplethorpe to shack up with painter Howie Michels, Mapplethorpe screamed, “Please don’t go! If you go, I’ll become gay.”[7] The next day, Smith came back to the apartment to collect her personal effects and found Mapplethorpe sitting amid piles of pictures that he’d clipped out of gay porno mags.

When Smith’s relationship with Michels fell apart, she discovered that Mapplethore was sleeping with a young man named Terry. “If I had been going out with another woman, it would have been different,” Mapplethorpe later recounted, “But Patti couldn’t compete with a man…She went crazy.”[8] Smith did indeed become suicidal, so she decided to take a break from her life in New York. She scraped up a paycheck or two from her cashier job at Scribner’s and flew to Paris with her sister Linda. She spent four months there, hanging out with street musicians, picking pockets and stalking the boulevards mapped out in her treasured Rimbaud biographies.[9]

This past May, my partner Julius and I were in Paris for Land 250, a collection of 40 years of Patti Smith’s photos, sketches, films, and written works on exhibit in the basement of Fondation Cartier Pour L’Art Contemporain. The exhibition’s namesake is the Polaroid Land 250 camera, a throwback to Smith and Mapplethorpe’s salad days before the rocker started rock and the photographer boxed up his Polaroids in favor of a Hassebald 2 ¼-inch camera, his passport to art-world superstardom, which longtime lover Sam Wagstaff would give him in 1975.

Luridness was the name of the game at Land 250. There were Polaroid snapshots of crypts, headstones, Hendrix’s guitar, former lovers like Mapplethorpe, and literary mementos like Herman Hesse’s typewriter and Virginia Woolf’s bed in Bloomsbury. Found objects on display included a rock from the river Ousse where Woolf drown herself. There was also a reconstruction of Smith’s pre-fame “dungeon” bedroom, where one could find notebooks full of jagged sketches, apocalyptic poems, and vicious crayon caricatures of Mapplethorpe and Smith’s consorts at the Chelsea Hotel and Max’s Kansas City.

Several of Fondation Cartier’s walls were awash in black-and-white video footage of Smith in various states of disarray and disorientation. Mapplethorpe directed and filmed one such short in which a bony, raven-haired Smith stands in a white room, wearing a virgin white nightgown: she sways in zombie-like slow motion, holding a Crucifix; candles burn before her, a demon’s head glares behind her. At age 7, Smith came down with scarlet fever and began having horrific visions on the scale of those in Gabriel Garcia Marquez novels. Although her mother was a Jehovah’s Witness and her father a Christian fundamentalist, her parents did nothing to disqualify or “exorcise” these hallucinations, so, from an early age, Smith was free to channel them into poetry and the visual arts. Thus, it’s no coincidence that she was attracted to Rimbaud’s absinthe-soaked “disordering of the senses”[10] or to Mapplethorpe’s unshakably Catholic visions of reprobation and damnation. One of Land 250’s main attractions was Smith’s letters to Mapplethorpe during her 1968 stay in Paris, where she wrote him many apotheoses of Rimbaud and attempted to come to terms with Mapplethorpe’s “coming out.”

A couple days after Julius and I returned home to New York, we went to The Whitney Museum of American Art to see Robert Mapplethorpe’s Polaroids exhibit, which featured selections from the more than 1,500 Polaroid snapshots that Mapplethorpe took between 1970 and 1975. Before filmmaker Sandy Daley lent him a Polaroid camera in 1970, Mapplethorpe had shown no interest in photography. He did not regard it as an art or as anything more than a favorite pastime of his prosaic engineer father, Harry Mapplethorpe, and the engine behind his own volumes of pornographic magazines. But tired of making mixed media installations that did not sell, Mapplethorpe developed a rabid fascination for the instant camera’s capacity to capture the instant. Art historian Sylvia Wolf writes that, for Mapplethorpe, “the Polaroid provided instant gratification, but more important it ignited a lifelong passion for using the camera to penetrate appearances and get at the complexity within.”[11] Mapplethorpe would cut his teeth on the Polaroid before achieving his dream of becoming one of the most celebrated and reviled artists of his era.

Patti Smith was a chief subject of this period in Mapplethorpe’s art. Mapplethorpe was known for treating his models as puppets whom he could easily manipulate into compromising erotic and autoerotic scenarios. Such was not the case for Smith, however, who was anything but a passive player before his lens. Even when nude, she appears no more vulnerable than he does in his utterly commanding nude self-portraits. Instead, she was a combination of muse and soul mate, whose intense gaze and androgyny were a welcome departure from the frilly female magazine models of the day. Patti Smith’s raffish aspect dominates nearly a dozen of the Polaroid shots (mostly untitled) that were on exhibit at the Whitney, all taken just before Mapplethorpe’s breakout photo of Smith on the cover of her debut album, Horses (1975).

“Once a Catholic, always a Catholic,” the old chestnut goes. Just like Andy Warhol and Madonna, Mapplethorpe wove Catholic imagery into some of his most controversial works. In the Polaroids exhibit, a shot of his long-haired model Michael’s face closely resembles that of many historic depictions of Christ at his last gasp on the Cross. Mapplethorpe also frequently exploited the highly erotic motif of St. Sebastian, the loin-clothed, tied-up, arrow-impaled youth, whose picture catalyzed writer Yukio Mishima’s first orgasm at age 12. At the Whitney, we witnessed several allusions to this image both in Mapplethorpe’s untitled self-portraits and instamatic shots of porn star Peter Berlin. In two portraits, there are also full-frontal and full-rear nude photos of his model Manfred, who is standing in a niche, duplicating the haughty contrapposto of Donatello’s David.

As a lapsed Catholic and Buddhist convert gazing at these Polaroids, I couldn’t help but wonder: Given all the Catholic iconography in his early and later work, was Patti Smith both a muse and an impenitent Magdalene for Mapplethorpe? Remember her opening line to Horses, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine”?

Whether or not Mapplethorpe ever actually made a deal with the devil, he did indeed develop a creative acuity and achieve worldly success far beyond anything his early critics at Pratt ever could have imagined for him. His work not only pinned American Puritanism to the floor, but gave kinky sex a supreme seat in modern art. How could this erotic explosion come out of a former Knight of Columbus, who hadn’t even seen a dirty magazine until just before his freshman year of college?

In 1989, months before Mapplethorpe’s death, his mother Joan sent the parish priest, Father George Stack, to her son’s Bond Street apartment with the words: “Father, he has AIDS and I want him to die in a state of grace.”[12] In his youth, Mapplethorpe used to drop by Father Stack’s office with portrait drawings he had made of the Madonna and Child. Father Stack later admitted that he found the drawings to be freaky, but he never told Robert this and always encouraged “this gentle, creative person surrounded by all these gung-ho macho types”[13] to continue his artistic endeavors. Holding true to the seal of the confessional, we will most likely never know what the priest and artist discussed at their reunion nor do we know if Mapplethorpe, like Goethe’s Faust, formally broke the bond he claimed to have made with the Prince of Darkness almost a quarter century before. But in his homily at Mapplethorpe’s funeral at Our Lady of the Snows, Father Stack said: “The last time I spoke with Robert he said he tried to present what he saw as beautiful in the most truthful way possible.”[14] He shared this same ideal with Patti Smith who can be seen sprinkling a likeness of his ashes on to her palm in her new film Dream of Life.

Kyle Thomas Smith is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. He is the Editor of Sentient City: The Art of Urban Dharma and a frequent contributor to Edge Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Vision and Art of Shinjo Ito. He is preparing for the release of his novel, 85A.


[1] Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe: A Biography (De Capo Press, New York, 1995, 1997), p. 104

[2] Ibid., p.44

[3] Ibid., p.44

[4] Ibid., p. 46

[5] Ibid., p. 59

[6] Ibid, p. 59

[7] Ibid., p.58

[8] Ibid., p. 61

[9] Ibid., p. 61

[10] From a letter from Arthur Rimbaud to Georges Izambard, May 1871

[11] Sylvia Wolf, Polaroids: Mapplethorpe (Prestel Verlag, 2007), p. 65

[12] Patricia Morrisroe, Mapplethorpe: A Biography (De Capo Press, New York, 1995, 1997), p.6

[13] Ibid, p. 23

[14] Ibid., p.6

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Assignment: Smith, Mapplethorpe

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on August 16, 2008

White Horse Magazine, which covers the international art scene, liked the writings on my site!

(By the way, I’m at http://www.streetlegalplay.com. Somebody has to teach me how to embed hyperlinks.)

They asked me to make a few pitches. They jumped right on the one I made about Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

This past May, Julius and I were in Paris. We went to see Land 250, an exhibition of Patti Smith’s visual work at the Fondation Cartier.

Smith had gone on a sojourn in Paris at some point in the Seventies, partly to track the pathways of Arthur Rimbaud whom she deified. The exhibition featured, under glass cases, a dossier of correspondence (letters, postcards) from Smith to Mapplethorpe, who stayed behind in New York. Most of them contained elegies to Rimbaud.

There was an installment that was a recreation of her erstwhile bedroom, laden with graffiti and stacked with books of Symbolist poetry and notebooks filled with half-finished apocaclyptic odes.

There were whole walls full of Symbolist-inspired video, where Smith looked as though she was going to go cold turkey at any moment while raucous jam sessions pounded all around her on the East Village streets.

Mapplethorpe filmed other black and white videos of Patti in a virginal white nightgown, a direct contrast to her ratty black hair. The camera would zoom in and out as she writhed on the floor or spun in a trance with a Crucifix in her hand or held private ceremonies over large, burning red candles. Mapplethorpe’s home videos of Smith played up the macabre ad absurdum.

Not much would happen in those videos either and they seemed to go on forever, just like an Andy Warhol movie.

Which brings me a little closer to my pitch to White Hot Magazine. Both Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe (I don’t know if the two ever met) were gay iconoclasts from devout Catholic homes who seized on iconic rock stars. For Warhol, it was the Velvets and the Stones. For Mapplethorpe, it was Patti Smith, though he knew her well before she became famous.

It seemed to me that the themes of saints and martyrdom suffuse even Warhol and Mapplethorpe’s most outrageous work. In fact, Warhol admitted that, in his images of Jackie Kennedy after the assassination, he’d deliberately depicted her as the mater dolorosa of America.

Shortly after Julius and I came back from our trip to France, we went to the Whitney Biennial. (That event is not worth my blog time here.) While at the Whitney, we went up to see the Mapplethorpe exhibit.

Goddamn, that was hard core! Just like in his Guggenheim room, Mapplethorpe made Tom of Finland look like a Peanuts cartoon. But, especially in his S&M shots, there is tons of imagery of martyrdom, much of which seems to be in direct reference to St. Sebastian – the tied-up, loin-clothed, arrow-pierced saint whose picture inspired Yukio Mishima’s first orgasm at the age of 12.

Once again, Patti was plastered all over the walls of his exhibit. And it occurred to me that she might have been a sort of a perverted, Symbolist saint for Mapplethorpe, though more of a Magdalene than a Madonna figure.

So, I told White Hot Magazine that I wanted to explore that Symbolist saint dynamic in Mapplethorpe’s relationship with Patti Smith. They ate it up.

So, tomorrow, Julius and I are taking a field trip to the Mapplethorpe Room at the Guggenheim. Then, on Monday, I’d better get my ass to the library and make sure I can stand this thesis on its legs.

It’s due September 10.